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Collections Corner: Soap Box Derby

A popular event in Indiana was the Soap Box Derby; it was not uncommon for close to 100 boys to compete in the local race. Many residents remember races being held on Philadelphia Street, Carter Avenue, and Water Street. The Soap Box Derby began in Indiana in 1956, and by the early 1970s interest waned and the races ended.

In our collection, and currently on display, is the Soap Box Derby car which belonged to Kennard Fairman. The derby car was built by Fairman in 1957, and it was his design that helped him claim the prestigious C.F. Kettering trophy for the best designed entry in the national championship run.

Dick Lias, owner of Lias Tires and Fairman’s sponsor, dreamed up a derby car which used automobile fenders for the body; the parts and tools were put in Kennard’s hands, and Kennard took it the rest of the way. Parts for his racer came from a used-car junk yard that Lias ran on the property where the Indiana Area Senior High School now stands.

The body of the cars was generally made out of wood or fabric, but Fairman’s car was different, as he used the right-side and left-side fenders to make the tail of the car. However, the rules provided that one was not allowed to do any welding, so everything was screwed onto the wooden frame and some putty was used to make the joints look fluid.

Another feature that made Fairman’s derby car unique was the fact that to lower the friction and let the car go faster. Fairman and Lias rigged up an electric motor with a pulley that spun the axles inside the wheels, and used toothpaste as an abrasive to get the ball bearings as smooth as possible.

Fairman's Racecar

Fairman raced the car, bearing his sponsor’s name, Lias Tires, in the Indiana Soap Box Derby on June 19, 1957 - the day before Fairman’s 14th birthday. The course covered 980 feet on Philadelphia Street from Ninth Street to 11th Street. The morning of the second annual Indiana County Soap Box Derby looked grim as steady rains fell on Indiana, but the local Jaycees worked tirelessly throughout the showers to prepare the course for the 4:00 p.m. start time.

The lineup that day according to the Indiana Evening Gazette printed on June 18, 1957, included 96 cars. The judges unanimously agreed that the championship race, which was first won by Fairman, should be re-run because of interference on the track. Fairman settled any disputes by winning the encore race and claimed the town championship and a place in the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio.

After the race, Fairman was to ride with Derby Queen Susan Rose up the course, but he preferred the truck which carried his racer, but as the Indiana Evening Gazette reported, he did give in and rode with Miss Rose with a police escort, to the start of the course to receive his prize in the winners’ circle.

Fairman's Trophy from the Indiana County 1957 Race

The race in Akron was held on August 18, and children from 159 communities were there to race. At stake was a $5,000 college scholarship and a two-week European vacation - to be awarded to the winner. Fairman’s car was emblazoned with the names of the Indiana County race sponsors - The Indiana Evening Gazette, the local Chevrolet dealer and the Indiana Jaycees.

In his first race, Fairman won against boys from Parkersburg, WV and Sioux Falls, SD, in 28.42 seconds, then finished second and was eliminated in his second-round race. Despite the loss, he joined derby champion Terry Townsend of Anderson, Ind., and several other racers in the winners’ circle and was awarded the best-design trophy by none other than Indiana-native Jimmy Stewart.

Fairman's Trophy from Akron Ohio

Stewart was fond of the Soap Box Derby, and often attended the races in Akron. In 1957, Stewart was the parade marshal and competed several times for the Oil Can Trophy in celebrity soap-box-car races. In 1947, Stewart canceled his appearances in a Broadway production of “Harvey” and in 1949 delayed his honeymoon with Gloria, so he could attend the derby.

No other racers from Indiana County ever won a championship in Akron, and no other racer has earned any kind of distinction that Fairman did. To see Fairman’s car and trophy on display along with other Soap Box memorabilia, visit the Historical Society during our business hours.

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